Like many dads who enjoy golf with their sons, Dudley Hart was glued to the television as Tiger Woods made his trek through the second nine at Augusta National on his way to winning a fifth Masters and 15th major championship.
But if Hart expressed amazement about the victory to 17-year-old Ryan, it had little to do with the remarkable return from spinal fusion surgery that Woods had endured less than two years earlier.
Been there, done that.
Hart, 50, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour who is now playing on the PGA Tour Champions, might be the one professional golfer who can relate to Woods in that sense.
Not only did he have his own spinal fusion surgery. He had two of them.
“It was impressive to watch that, being a fellow player and someone who has gone through that,” Hart said. “But I’m not really surprised. The guy is obviously mentally as strong as I’ve ever seen. There’s a physical aspect. He is in great shape, which puts him way ahead of my scenario.
“We all saw the struggles. I know he questioned himself physically. And I believe he’s admitted that he’s had to change how he works, how he does things. That’s not easy for any golfer, especially one as regimented as he was with what he did. I’m not surprised he won again, especially at Augusta. He has great memories there, great things to draw on. But you still have to do it, you have to execute and beat the best players in the world. And there’s just nobody with a better work ethic.”
Hart said Woods’ 81st PGA Tour title was less of a shock to him because he has lived the benefits of a spinal fusion — even if the first one he had didn’t go as planned.
Most who follow Woods — who will chase his 16th major this week when he tees off in the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black — are by now aware of his back history that first included three microdiskectomies in 2014-15. Those were procedures intended to shave down a disk and keep it from bulging against a nerve.
Although no doctor with knowledge of Woods’ specific case is available to speak, Woods made it clear through his own actions and words that those procedures did not work. At least not for long. He has talked about nerve pain and being unable to attend the 2017 Champions Dinner at the Masters without the help of a “nerve block,” a shot to relieve pain.
That is around the time he decided to have the spinal fusion surgery — viewed by some as a last resort, by others as a career ender.
“It’s almost miraculous,” Jack Zigler, president of the International Society for the Advancement of Spine Surgery, told The Washington Post. “On the one hand, you have somebody who’s in great physical condition and extremely well motivated — it’s the ideal patient. But on the other hand, he’s going back to an unbelievable level of function. The likelihood you could ever get back there is small.”
Hart was told by several doctors he consulted with that he should quit golf when he was considering his options for dealing with back and nerve pain.
“That’s not something I wanted to hear when you’re not qualified to do anything else in life,” Hart joked.
Hart’s trouble began in 2000 when he was on a golf trip in Ireland before playing The Open at St. Andrews. He ended up withdrawing from the championship during the third round, and had issues on and off for the next several years, finally figuring enough was enough after limping through the 2009 Masters.
“I had a herniated disk, and I was having the worst pain I ever had,” he said. “I finally went and saw a doctor and I didn’t have any disk left. Basically, [it was] bone on bone. I went and saw three or four more doctors, and two of them told me I should stop playing golf.”
Hart had the spinal fusion surgery in 2009, although he said it did not work. When he was still having issues two years later, he consulted with another doctor, who determined that the bone had not properly fused.
Like Woods, Hart was dealing with an issue with the lowest lumbar vertebra (L5) and the highest vertebra in the sacrum (S1). The fusion removes the disk, then fuses the bones together with screws.
Hart’s second surgeon discovered two screws that were not attached.
“And so I started the process all over again,” he said, having the second surgery performed in 2012 after playing no tournaments over two seasons.
“After that surgery, to be honest, I could tell a difference in pain immediately waking up compared to the first one,” Hart said. “But it took a long time. I was told I couldn’t do anything for six months — except walk. No working out. No lifting. No chipping. No twisting. They want it to grow, and they want to be careful. Then, after that, you start the rehab process.”
This is similar to what Woods has described, although his surgeon, Dr. Richard Guyer, has not spoken publicly about his direct work with the golfer; Woods’ representatives have declined requests to allow Guyer to speak.
Guyer is the co-founder of the Texas Back Institute in Plano, Texas, where Woods had the 2017 surgery. He is also the co-director of the institute’s Center for Disc Replacement.
Part of his work has involved convincing patients that they can have a normal life after a fusion surgery, as well as working with insurance companies to understand the need to cover such a procedure.
Although they might appear drastic for athletes, especially golfers, spinal fusions are actually quite common. The procedure has been in use for more than 50 years. The fusions are performed in various ways, some more invasive than others.
Officially, Woods’ procedure is called an anterior lumbar interbody fusion. In this procedure, an incision is made through the belly button. The disk that had been giving the patient so much trouble is removed, and a bone graft and screws help bring the bones together, with them ultimately “fusing” over time.
Perhaps the only other golfer of note to endure anything similar was Retief Goosen, the two-time U.S. Open champion who now plays on the PGA Tour Champions circuit. Goosen, 50, had a degenerated disk (L3-L4, which is higher up on the spine than where Woods and Hart had trouble) and elected to have disk replacement surgery in 2012. Although he said the surgery “has given me a second life,” he did not win again on the PGA or European tours.
Hart, who starred at the University of Florida before turning pro, won twice, at the 1996 Bell Canadian Open and at the 2000 Honda Classic, before his back issues really began to hamper him.
Despite all the setbacks, he managed to earn more than $12 million in official prize money, had 55 top-10 finishes and is exempt on the PGA Tour Champions via the career money category.
“I still have little issues,” said Hart, whose best finish in five starts this year is a tie for 27th. “But I don’t know if that’s because I’m 50 and played professional golf for 30 years.
“There’s a lot more maintenance for me to play golf. My practice sessions are no longer near as long. I’m just not hitting balls for four or five hours at a clip like when I was younger. I have a certain number of balls. If I can’t figure it out, I have to do it the next day. At times it’s been frustrating, but I try to keep things in perspective. I was able to live my dream for a long time — and avoid having a real job.”
And that, ultimately, is why Hart understands the Woods comeback — and might be why Woods chose to skip playing in Charlotte two weeks before the PGA Championship. The power and distance is not a surprise because, as Hart said, you lose only a small percentage of rotation in the swing because of the surgery. And Woods has maintained a high level of fitness.
Also, some days are just not going to be as good as others, so it’s wise to expect some times when Woods simply will not be at his best.
“For me, once I started the physical therapy part, it was kind of trial and error,” Hart said. “Not sure anybody who had a lower back fusion had tried to come back and play. If you tear your ACL, there’s a protocol. That is what I struggled with the most, trying to find out what I needed to do to get back where I needed to. Is yoga good? Is Pilates good? Some things worked, some things didn’t. I don’t think there is a manual for a professional golfer after a back fusion.
“I don’t think your back is ever the same. I don’t have a ton of painful days. But every day is uncomfortable to some degree. It doesn’t necessarily hurt to swing, but you just know it’s not always normal. I had a day recently where I felt like I could make about a half backswing and that was it. It wasn’t painful. There are just days where you don’t move as well.”